Oregon playwright E.M. Lewis’s new show Magellanica opens with a scientist holding a parka and some luggage. “No one ends up in Antarctica by accident,” she says matter-of-factly. It’s true. Those who head deep into the frozen continent do must have strong resolve. The journey is long but those who make it hope for great payoffs.
Magellanica, which had its world premiere on Saturday at Artists Repertory Theatre, embraces this ethos with a five-and-a-half hour run time. The question you’re probably asking is, “Does the payoff justify its length?” The answer is a definite yes.
Don’t worry: There are three intermissions and a dinner break.
Set in 1986, Magellanica follows five scientists, one cartographer, and two crew members to an international research station at the South Pole, the most inhospitable place on the surface of the earth. Some of them are there to study the newly discovered hole in the ozone layer. Some are there to escape their own pasts. Some are doing both at the same time.
Eight people, spending eight months in the coldest, darkest, and most remote place on the planet: It’s a little like Real World meets a David Attenborough nature documentary. People stop being polite and start getting real. But with a lot more science.
Lewis’s script feels a lot like television, or rather Netflix, which is where much of the best TV writing is happening now. The show is episodic: Each act ends in both a resolution and a cliffhanger, but always in service to a larger arc. Despite the long run time each act also feels tantalizingly short, hooking the audience in for the next.
While they’re structured after television, the script and production masterfully embrace theatrical elements. Lewis makes heavy use of soliloquy, having the characters speak to, and openly acknowledge, the audience. This creates intimacy and allows for some poignant musings on science, nature, and humanity.
Megellanica actually becomes more theatrical as it goes on: In its climax the script merges all the characters into a gestalt narrator for one act, describing a perilous journey some of the scientists make outside of the fragile safety of the station. The script, acting, directing, and design come together perfectly, keeping the audience in anxious suspense.
Director Dámaso Rodríguez knows to keep the show moving, and runs it at a brisk pace. Scenes transition fluidly and he’s always making full use of the stage, letting moments happen behind the main action. But he also recognizes the spots in the script where the audience needs to linger, giving us a moment to breathe, or take our breath away.
The visual design in Magellanica is masterful. Instead of invoking the claustrophobia of the station by realistically recreating its small interior, scenic designer Stephanie Kerley Schwarts does away with walls almost entirely. Instead, huge white sheets tower above the actors and enclose the stage, while small mobile set pieces create the rooms of the station. The isolation doesn’t come from walls. It’s from the landscape. It looms large in the show. Ice in every direction. Beautiful, alien, and dangerous.
This towering frozen landscape also serves as a display for huge projections and light effects. Sometimes it’s the massive night sky; sometimes it’s the invisible lines of the earth seen in a cartographer’s mind. In one dazzling scene it’s the aurora australis.
It’s too simple to say that Magellanica is a show about the hole in the ozone layer. Or even about climate change. It’s a show about humans trying to find their place on the earth. The amazing progress we’ve made and all the things we’ve broken along the way. About how you start to pick up those pieces, and how hard that is.
There’s a sense that everything Lewis is talking about is on scales too large and complicated to comprehend. But what keeps the show from becoming too abstract is that Lewis grounds these big ideas in human beings. The characters start as broadly painted archetypes: the grumpy Russian, the uptight Brit, the Vietnam vet with PTSD. But over the course of the show Lewis reveals them to be surprisingly complex.
There’s also a sense that you are supposed to like these characters, which doesn’t mean Lewis is opposed to causing them pain, but rather that she wants you to root for them as they struggle and make mistakes. Combined with strong performances from the actors, it comes off.
This success largely comes from the script’s humor and warmth. These moments allow for delightful contradictions for characters engaged in such serious business.
Michael Mendelson delivers on the humor as the grumpy Russian scientist Dr. Vladamir “Vadik” Chapayev. Full of quips, but never bullshit, Mendelson makes Chapayev a force to be reckoned with without steamrolling the other characters.
Meanwhile, Barbie Wu brings the warmth with her performance as the youngest scientist of the group. Wu’s sincerity pulls the audience into the world of the show, but she also delves into the depths of her character when faced with the harsh realities her environment.
Vin Shambry plays the leader of the expedition, a Vietnam War veteran. His character carries a weight around, the weight of the past and his responsibilities, and you can feel it in Shambry’s performance: a sense of restraint in his movements and his delivery, always trying to assert control over every situation.
When we get to the end of Magellanica you can tell both Lewis and Rodríguez want to stick the endings, and they do, but a touch too hard. An unnecessary musical number pops up. It’s not incongruous in such a theatrical show, but it doesn’t add anything to the moment it inhabits, and is easily forgotten.
Likewise, as the final scene begins a visual crescendo, a map of the rising global temperatures is projected on the screen. Climate change and the hole in the ozone are different (and very real) issues but the parallels between how America discusses these problems are already explicit in the text. The characters have conversations about the hole in the ozone that parrot actual conversations happening in science right now about climate change. The melting of the Antarctic sea ice is also alluded to in the script. It’s as if Rodríguez didn’t quite trust that the audience would make the connection.
Nit-pickings aside, Magellanica ends with a sense of wonder and resolve. That the world is bigger, more complicated, more beautiful, and more terrifying than we can comprehend. But we shouldn’t be afraid of how big it is. We still have agency. Not just scientists and politicians. All of us. And we depend on each other to make it through the darkness.
Magellanica continues through Feb. 18 at Artists Repertory Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.